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Off-duty Buffalo officer saves a life on plane to Las Vegas

Buffalo Police Officer Jennifer D. Whitaker arrived at a 911 call for a woman who had collapsed last year.

She panicked and froze.

Other first responders soon arrived and revived the woman.

“I made a vow to God that I would act immediately if given the opportunity again,” Whitaker said.

She kept her vow on a recent flight to a friend’s wedding in Las Vegas.

“I was listening to Gospel music on my headphones when I heard somebody saying, ‘Help this lady, help this lady.’ It must have been loud. I could hear it over my music.” Whitaker jumped up and looked behind her. A woman was lying unconscious in the aisle.

“I ran to her and checked for a pulse and heartbeat. There was none, so I began CPR,” recalled the 38-year-old petite, high-energy officer who is known for her hugs and infectious smile that makes others want to smile.

But this was no time for hugs or smiles. Whitaker put on her all-business face, though, she says, “I was terrified the whole time.”

As she performed chest compressions, she asked if anyone knew the woman’s medical history.

The woman’s daughter was in the back of the plane with a flight attendant, but a man traveling with them said she had a heart condition.

Determined not to let the woman’s life slip away, Whitaker kept up with the CPR for what seemed like forever.

“But it was probably just two or three minutes,” she said.

Suddenly the woman came to and with the help another Buffalonian who happened to be on the flight, city Firefighter Rafael Suarez, they raised the woman to a sitting position and Suarez put an oxygen mask on her.

“I was asking the woman questions. What day is it? Do you have any pain? Do you know where you are?  Things to keep her conscious and aware,” Whitaker said.

The woman, though dazed, managed to answer and was helped into her seat.

Whitaker took a breather and headed to the restroom.

When she was making her way back to her seat, she stopped to check  in on the woman whose daughter was now with her.

“The daughter told her ‘I was the one who saved her life.’ The mother grabbed me and hugged me and thanked me,” said Whitaker, who is married to a Buffalo police officer and the mother of three young boys.

When the flight landed about an hour later, emergency medical technicians helped the woman off and took her to a hospital.

Whitaker, who doesn’t even know the woman’s name, believes her role in saving the stranger’s life was foreshadowed earlier in the day by a reflection she had at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

“The flight number was 1911 and I had thought to myself how close that number was to 911,” she said of the emergency phone number whose callers so often seek help from first responders.

People on the plane were impressed with Whitaker’s cool headed manner and it calmed them as they nervously watched her actions.

Among them was Niagara County Acting District Attorney Theodore A. Brenner. He introduced himself to the officer and later wrote a letter to Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda informing him of what happened on the flight last month.

“Officer Whitaker was across the aisle and one row in front of me and in the middle seat. I still don’t know how she did it, but within 10 seconds she was out of that middle seat and six rows back administering CPR and directing others in assisting her.

“You would have been so proud of your officer when she went back to check on the woman and the woman just hugged her and sobbed and said thank you over and over,” Brenner wrote. “When our road cops do something like this, I always tell them that there are not a lot of people you can point to and say there is someone that is walking the earth that wouldn’t be but for them, and that is now true of Officer Jennifer Whitaker.”

Derenda says he is indeed proud of the eight-year police officer.

“She should be applauded. She stepped up and her training took over,” Derenda said.

The commissioner is not the only one who is proud of the Northeast District patrol officer.

District Chief Carmen Menza said how officers respond to trying circumstances defines them as people and Whitaker is someone who can be counted on.

“She’s not just a great police officer, but a wonderful person,” Menza said.

Two years ago, she arrested a man wanted for a double homicide. In February 2009, just three months after beginning patrol duties, she did not cower when a suspect she was chasing fired a gun at her. She caught the shooter and handcuffed him.

Her bravery has been honored with different awards from Derenda, the Afro-American Police Association of Buffalo and the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association.

Her husband says he is honored to be able to share his life with her. They have known each other since they were 16 and were the first married couple to go through the Erie County Police Training Academy together as a married couple.

James Whitaker was not on the flight with her because he had to attend the funeral of a relative, but he says that when he learned of his wife’s actions, he was not surprised.

“She’s a special lady, a wonderful wife and mother,” he said. “She lives by the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

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